Is Democracy a Threat to Liberty?

Shadia B. Drury

We live in an age that is in love with democracy. Democracy is considered the gold standard of political order, rationality, prosperity, and well-being. We are willing to fight wars for it; we are willing to die and kill for it. We see no harm in imposing it on others by force—as if, after we throw pearls to swine, the swine will eventually come to appreciate their value and display their deepest gratitude. The trouble is that our love for democracy is replete with confusions and even subterfuge. It is my contention that democracy is beloved either because it is confused with other things or for nefarious reasons that display the defects inherent in democratic politics. In what follows, I will attempt to untangle democracy from other concepts with which is it often confused, especially political and economic liberalism, and examine at least one nefarious reason why it is as beloved by American social conservatives as it is by Muslim extremists. In this way, we will know if it is something worth dying and killing for.

In the history of the West, democracy and liberalism belong to two different, even antithetical, traditions. The democratic tradition is concerned primarily with collective self-determination, whereas the liberal tradition is concerned primarily with individual freedom. Democracy has its roots in the ancient Athenian city-state, or polis; it is defined by a penchant for equality (among those fortunate enough to be citizens of the polis) and a corresponding antipathy to oligarchic rule. In contrast, liberalism is not particularly egalitarian, except when it comes to equality of opportunity. But on the whole, it regards life as a race in which the most outstanding succeed. In this way, inequality is justified by the fairness of the race.

The goals of liberalism do not depend on political participation in the public sphere. Liberalism asks only that the individual be left alone to live his or her life without government interference in private affairs. This sort of political liberty is quite compatible with, for example, constitutional monarchy. It does not require democratic self-government. After all, democracy is not the rule of each individual over himself or herself but the rule of individuals by the collective, which generally means the majority. The freedom of individuals will therefore depend on the character of the collective. In this way, individual liberty will be at the mercy of the will of the majority.

In the seventeenth century, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government articulated the liberal tradition in terms of the natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Locke argued that the sole purpose of government was to secure these rights. His ideas were the basis of England’s Glorious Revolution (1688), the American Revolution (1776), and the French Revolution (1789). All these were liberal revolutions intended to replace the arbitrariness of absolute sovereignty with the rule of law, which would guarantee the basic rights of a civil society (that is, civil liberties). This meant that government could not arbitrarily arrest or imprison a person without charge or trial or engage in extra-judicial killing. Ironically, such uncivil conduct has become the hallmark of American interference in the affairs of other countries, despite America’s paean to Lockean liberalism.

In the eighteenth century, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations succeeded in undermining the mercantilist system of monopolistic privileges in favor of the capitalist system of unhampered individual competition. In this way, economic liberalism was wedded to political liberalism and continues to be the hallmark of the liberal democracies of the West even after the rise of capitalist oligopolies diminished the free play of individual competition in the economy. So, in imposing democracy on nations hungry for liberty, the United States has in fact offered only a decayed version of economic liberalism, and the corporate culture and obscenely wealthy oligarchs that go with it. In so doing, it betrays both liberalism and democracy.

In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill extended the political liberties to be enjoyed by citizens in a liberal society to include freedom of thought, speech, and lifestyle. This meant not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion, including the freedom to criticize religion and to live as one pleases as long as one does not harm others. Interestingly, Mill felt compelled to defend liberty in a democratic age. He rightly feared that the tyranny of the majority would threaten liberty.

It took almost a century before Mill’s liberal ideas were made historically manifest. But eventually, Mill’s ideas were echoed in the Report of England’s Wolfenden Committee (1957), which led to the decriminalization of homosexuality and prostitution between consenting adults (1967). In the United States, “sodomy laws” were first abolished in Illinois in 1962; other states followed, but many Southern states clung to their legal prohibitions until the Supreme Court struck them down in 2003. Prostitution was another matter. Brothels were rampant throughout the United States in the nineteenth century, but toward the end of the century concerns for public morality took center stage with the passing of the notoriously ambiguous Mann Act (1910).

As articulated by Mill, freedom of lifestyle was intended to defend exceptional and eccentric individuals from the debilitating conformity that society requires. Liberalism was not a manifesto for the defense of vice. Nevertheless, liberty requires tolerance for private vices, because the state has no business imposing a private morality on individuals. But liberalism has never defended madams, pimps, pornographers, and other entrepreneurs who live off the vices of others.

Mill’s demand for individual liberty was a dramatic blow to the idea that laws should reflect the morality of society, an idea that belongs as much to conservatism as it does to democracy. It is therefore no wonder that social conservatives of every stripe have such enthusiasm for democracy, especially when the numbers are on their side. This is as true for American conservatives as for the Muslim Brotherhood. Social conservatives are interested in the private morality of individuals; they believe that it is the business of the state to enforce it—by democratic means, of course. The latter have the effect of bestowing a certain legitimacy and even modernity on these age-old religious repressions. In this way, democracy is the handmaid of social conservatism and its religious despotism. In Iraq, there was more individual freedom (especially for women) under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein than under the democratic government installed by the United States. By the same token, the democratized Afghanistan has passed shockingly repressive laws, especially against women. In Egypt, the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood brought such repressive laws that the country opted to return to military dictatorship one year later.

So, does democracy threaten liberty? Absolutely. Is reconciliation between the two impossible? Not exactly. Despite the tension between the liberal and the democratic traditions, they have nevertheless become closely integrated in the history of the West, so much so that we think of them as a single entity—liberal democracy. But it behooves us to recognize that their amalgamation has taken over three hundred years. In the process, both liberalism and democracy were beneficiaries of their deep integration. Liberalism prevented democracy from deteriorating into mob rule by insisting on the rule of law and the protection of minorities. At the same time, the egalitarian proclivities of democracy made liberalism more inclusive and less aristocratic. In the twentieth century, feminist philosophers such as Carole Pateman ri
ghtly suspected that the individual championed by liberalism was a privileged male individual. This had the effect of leaving underprivileged males behind and relegating women to the private realm beyond the protection of the law. Accordingly, radical democratic thinkers such as Chantal Mouffe defend the equal liberty of all citizens, including women, gays, and transgenders. So understood, democracy is an ethos that requires citizens to treat one another with respect as free and equal subjects. This deep integration of liberalism and democracy in the West remains a work in progress. Nevertheless, it has taken root sufficiently to create a unique state of affairs that cannot be easily transferred or reproduced overnight in societies with very different circumstances and history.

The tragedy of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been the failure of American policy makers—Democrats and Republicans—to recognize the tension between liberty and democracy. They have mistakenly assumed that democracy will automatically yield both political and economic liberalism. Their efforts to export Western liberal democracy have therefore ended in catastrophe in one country after another. They wrongly assumed that by replacing tyranny with electoral politics, they would give birth to friendly governments sharing the same values (and enemies) as themselves. It came as a surprise to them when the Iraqi government they had installed with so much blood and treasure allied itself with America’s nemesis in the region, Iran. In 2006, when the Palestinians elected Hamas in a free and fair election, the United States and Israel refused to accept the outcome because they confused democracy with the affirmation of their own values. I believe that the conceptual disentangling of democracy from political and economic liberalism is necessary if American foreign policy is to be rescued from its current state of colossal ineptitude.


Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Liberalism and democracy are very different things. Failure to grasp that underlies America’s failed attempts to “export” “liberal democracy.”

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